Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick claimed to be in the dark about widespread allegations of sexual harassment and discrimination that surfaced at the company earlier this year, but according to a new bombshell report by The Wall Street Journal, Kotick wasn’t just aware of the misconduct, he was also involved in ignoring or downplaying the mistreatment of women.
In the wake of a California lawsuit over the summer alleging sexual discrimination, harassment, and a “frat boy” culture across Activision Blizzard, many have questioned Kotick’s culpability given his decades-long tenure as the head of the company. Last month, the CEO apologized to staff after agreeing to an $18 million settlement with federal regulators and pledged to take steps to improve how the company treats its employees.
“Over the years, Mr. Kotick himself has been accused by several women of mistreatment both inside and outside the workplace, and in some instances has worked to settle the complaints quickly and quietly,” The Wall Street Journal writes.
A spokesperson for Activision Blizzard sent Kotaku the following statement when asked about the new report.
We are disappointed in the Wall Street Journal’s report, which presents a misleading view of Activision Blizzard and our CEO. Instances of sexual misconduct that were brought to his attention were acted upon. The WSJ ignores important changes underway to make this the industry’s most welcoming and inclusive workplace and it fails to account for the efforts of thousands of employees who work hard every day to live up to their – and our - values. The constant desire to be better has always set this company apart.
Which is why, at Mr. Kotick’s direction, we have made significant improvements, including a zero-tolerance policy for inappropriate conduct. And it is why we are moving forward with unwavering focus, speed, and resources to continue increasing diversity across our company and industry and to ensure that every employee comes to work feeling valued, safe, respected, and inspired. We will not stop until we have the best workplace for our team.
In 2006, Kotick reportedly harassed one of his assistants, threatening in a voicemail to have her killed. In 2007, Kotick allegedly told a private jet flight attendant who was suing him for sexual harassment committed by the pilot of his jet, “I’m going to destroy you.” A spokesman for Activision told The Wall Street Journal that Kotick immediately apologized for the 2006 incident. Kotick also denied ever telling the flight attendant he would “destroy” her.
In 2020, 30 female employees in Activision’s esports department reportedly sent an email to the department heads saying they were “subject to unwanted touching, demeaning comments, exclusion from important meetings, and unsolicited comments on their appearance.” According to The Wall Street Journal, Kotick was aware of the email. A spokesperson for Activision said he addressed their concerns by putting diversity and inclusion training in place for the esports team managers.
The Wall Street Journal’s report also includes new allegations against others previously at the company.
Former Blizzard technology chief Ben Kilgore was fired in 2018 after an investigation into multiple allegations of sexual harassment but was thanked “for his many contributions over the last four and a half years” in an email by then-boss Michael Morhaime. Kilgore did not respond to The Wall Street Journal’s request for comment.
Javier Panameno, a former supervisor at Sledgehammer Games, which just released Call of Duty: Vanguard, was accused of raping one woman and sexually harassing a second. One of the women assaulted reported both incidents to human resources before leaving the company in 2017, according to The Wall Street Journal, but Activision Blizzard did not investigate the allegations and subsequently fire the supervisor until the following year when a lawyer for one of the women emailed the company. Activision settled with the woman out of court, but Kotick reportedly did not inform the company’s Board of Directors about the incident. Activision Blizzard is currently under investigation by the SEC regarding whether it made appropriate disclosures to its investors about misconduct at the company in the past.
Dan Bunting, co-head of Treyarch up until this month, which leads development on Call of Duty: Black Ops, was accused of sexually harassing a female coworker in 2017 after a night of drinking. A 2019 internal investigation reportedly recommended he be fired, but The Wall Street Journal reports that Kotick intervened to prevent that and Bunting was given counseling instead. Bunting did not respond to The Wall Street Journal’s request for comment, but a spokesperson for Activision said, “After considering potential actions in light of that investigation, the company elected not to terminate Mr. Bunting, but instead to impose other disciplinary measures.”
Two years later, Bunting has left the company, but only after The Wall Street Journal asked about the allegation.
Kotick’s recent commitments to fix the company and make it a safe and equitable place for employees are also under renewed scrutiny following the resignation of Jen Oneal, Blizzard’s first female studio co-head.
She announced her decision to leave earlier this month, after just being appointed to the position over the summer following the fallout around the California lawsuit. The Wall Street Journal now reports that she previously expressed reservations about whether the company would actually change in an email.
In it, she said she was paid less than her newly appointed counterpart, Mike Ybarra, and felt “tokenized, marginalized, and discriminated” during her time at the company. Activision Blizzard told Kotaku Oneal was “offered equivalent compensation for the co-lead role,” but Oneal has since said that only occurred after she resigned. She also recalled a 2007 party at an Activision studio where women danced on stripper poles and the DJ encouraged female attendees to get drunk. Activision Blizzard said Kotick did not remember the party.
“Over the last few years our industry has had an uncomfortable spotlight that’s been illuminating opportunities for us to change,” Kotick told staff today in a prepared video. “And we must all, including me, embrace this need for change, so we can bring our very best selves to the very best place to work.”
Update: 11/16/21, 3:21 p.m. ET: Activision Blizzard’s Board of Directors, all but two of which are men, are sticking by the embattled CEO.
“The Board remains confident that Bobby Kotick appropriately addressed workplace issues brought to his attention,” it said in a statement released after the stock dropped roughly $10 a share in just a few hours.
Update: 11/17/21, 4:00 p.m. ET: Activision Blizzard leadership further defended itself and Bobby Kotick in an all-hands meeting Wednesday. According to a report by Game Developer, Management confirmed that it decided to give employees all of Thanksgiving week off after it learned of The Wall Street Journal report.
It also said the company’s new zero-tolerance policy toward misconduct would not apply to Kotick’s past reported behavior because it happened over a decade ago and there was no evidence, apparently ignoring questions about his apparent role in keeping Bunting on at Treyarch despite recommendations for him to be fired.
Update: 11/16/21, 12:35 p.m. ET: Added a statement from Activision Blizzard and more information from The Wall Street Journal’s report.
Update: 11/16/21, 12:57 p.m. ET: Added remarks from a video Kotick sent to staff today.
Update: 11/16/21, 2:28 p.m. ET: Added comment from Activision Blizzard about Jen Oneal’s compensation.
Update: 11/17/21, 7:48 a.m. ET: Clarified that Oneal is has not yet left the company and added new reporting that she was only offered equal compensation after threatening to leave.